ENGLAND 1066 TO 1088


Geoff Boxell

Everyone in England knows the date 1066, for in that year England changed forever. Most will connect 1066 with the Battle of Hastings, but Hastings was the culmination of a series of major events that had taken place that year. When the saintly and childless King Edward died the king's council, the Witan, gathered to elect a new king. Finding no suitable member of the Royal Family, they decided to make Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, the new king. Of Danish Royal blood through his mother, he had in fact been effectively running the kingdom for several years. Under his care England had prospered.

Harold faced a challenge to his new throne from the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, who claimed to be Christendom's best warrior. Harald invaded the north of England with a fleet of 360 longships manned by men from all over the Viking world. After defeating the local army at Fulford, he took York. King Harold Godwinson marched 200 miles in six days, caught the Viking army off guard and killed Hardrada and most of his men. The English victory was such, that only 24 longships were needed to get the Viking survivors home. Whilst celebrating the victory feast news was given to King Harold that another challenger had landed, Duke William the Bastard of Normandy. Harold gathered the remnants of his army and rapidly marched south to meet the new threat. Outside Hastings, blocking the strategic roads to the main city of the realm, London, and Winchester, where the treasury was, and with reinforcements still arriving, the English army was defeated. King Harold died and with him fell his household troops and the flower of the English nobility.

The impression of many people, especially those not of English birth, and including a surprising number of history academics, is that that was that, having lost their king, most of the nobility and the best fighting men, the English then stopped resisting the Norman's and that the Conquest, as such, took effect immediately King Harold died. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the rear guard action at the Battle of Hastings, know as the Fight at the Fosse, where Norman casualties were higher than even those of the main battle, to the final quenching of resistance some twenty years later, the Normans knew little peace from their English subjects. Indeed has it ever ended? Those who know the English class system with its continuous snipping would say that the struggle against the 'Norman Yoke' continues to this day.

After Hastings William advanced on London by a circular route that started via Kent, burning a ring of fire around the country's main city. The advance was resisted and met much armed resistance. Meanwhile the Witan had proclaimed as king the young Edgar Æþeling, last scion of the old Wessex royal line. William moved towards London to enforce his will before the remaining English nobility were able to regroup around Edgar and start an organised resistance. Indeed an attempt to secure the southern approach to London Bridge by part of his army had failed at Southwark. As a result of this and William's problems with the local populace resistance to his foraging parties, that he was forced to take a considerable detour to Wallingford, well west of London, before he could find a safe and defensible place to cross the Thames. Even then it was uncertain what the reaction of the Londoners would be to his army. London, upon the advice of Aldred, Archbishop of York, and Earl Morcar of Northumberland together with his brother Edwin, Earl of Mercia, submitted. Even so there was an armed skirmish, which resulted in the massacre of many Londoners.

William's coronation was on midwinter's day, and shortly after he returned to Normandy taking the surviving English nobles with him.

The English resistance first showed itself, not in armed defiance, but in stubbornness, when the monks at Peterborough not only elected one of their own to replace the recently deceased abbot, but sought out Edgar Æþeling, whom they declared was the true king, to approve the appointment. William was not amused and sent armed men to display his wroth. Fortunately William was always gold hungry and allowed himself to be bought off with a hefty fine.

But the real trouble in 1067, was brewing in the hilly Marcher land of the Welsh border. Here two Norman Earls who belonged to families settled in the area during the reign of King Edward the Confessor, used the confusion caused by William's seizing of the throne, to extend their land holdings at the expense of the local English thanes. They attacked those lands held by Edric, soon to become known as 'the Wild'. This Edric is thought by many to be the Edric the Steersman who commanded the Channel fleet in 1066. There was already bad blood between Edric and his Norman neighbours and now it exploded into open warfare. In revenge for raids on his land Edric, in alliance with two Welsh princes, Bleððyn and Rhiwallon, devastated Herefordshire and eventually sacked Hereford itself, before retreating back into the hills ahead of the new king's revengeful army.

Meantime, King Harold's mother, Gytha encouraged the people of Devon to rise up and William had major problems subduing them, especially in retaking the city of Exeter. At the same time, the other main claimant to the English throne, Edgar Æþeling, had escaped the Norman king's clutches and gone to Scotland with his family and a large number of important men. The south was also restive and later in the year, the men of Dover invited Eustace of Boulogne to help them in their insurrection. This uprising was soon put down without the presence of King William himself. The people of the north were also chafing under Norman rule. William advanced upon them with his army, burning and laying waste as he went, The men of Northumberland lacked the confidence to take part in a battle and either submitted or fled into Scotland to join the other refugees there.

In the autumn two of King Harold's sons, who had gone to the Norse east coast of Ireland, came and raided the west country, where the Celtic Cornishmen joined them in arms. They plundered and ravished the countryside to such an extent that eventually even the English lost patience and joined with local Norman garrisons to expel them.

In the following year of 1068, King William appointed a certain Robert de Comines, Earl of Northumberland, without asking the locals if they would accept him instead of the English Earl Morcar. The result was that the men of Northumberland massacred Robert and 900 of his men whilst they were staying in the city of Durham. Edgar Æþeling took advantage of this and came from Scotland and received the men of Northumberland at York. William moved up fast from the south and surprised the Northumbrians. Hundreds were slain and the city torched.

1069 and Harold's sons were back, raiding the west country again. Unfortunately for them they met defeat at the hands of Earl Brian of Penthievre, and fled back to Ireland. At the same time Edric the Wild and his Welsh allies had broken out from their Marcher hills and took Shrewsbury before moving on to Chester. William had to leave them to their own devices as he had his hand's full dealing with an uprising in Northumberland lead by Morcar and his brother Edwin supported by the Danish king, Swein Esthrithson, who also had a claim to the English throne. Fighting alongside them were the Earls Waltheof and Gospatrick, together with Edgar Æþeling. The Normans in York were slaughtered, with Earl Waltheof's exploit of slaying a hundred Frenchmen with his long-axe as they tried to escape through a gate, ending up in heroic verse. William moved north again laying waste as he went. The Danes took to their ships and commenced raiding the east coast, seeking assistance from their relations in the Danelaw part of England, which included the marshy wetlands of the Fens, where other trouble was brewing. William left part of his army to watch them whilst he crossed the Pennine hills to face the threat posed by Edric and the Welsh princes, who now had a formidable army bolstered by the men of Cheshire and Staffordshire. William rode with his men and joined Earl Brian, who had marched up from the West Country after beating Harold's sons. Edric became wary and withdrew to the hills with his Herefordshire and Shropshire men. The Welsh, with the remaining English, marched on and were defeated at the battle of Stafford. William then devastated the land about and laid it waste. A further revolt in the West Country, that seemed to be aimed at individual Normans, fizzled out in the face of forces drawn from London and the south east and through internal dissent amongst the insurgents.

William now dealt with the Northumberland problem, a problem that had grown with the stepping up of revolt in the Fens lead by a local landholder, Hereward the Wake. After a hard march north along a route determined by violent resistance, broken bridges and swollen rivers, William took and re-entered York without a fight. The Danes had fled and the men of Northumberland, dispirited by William's ability to advance despite the hazards set before him by both nature and English, fled into the hills, pursued by King William's men. With grim determination, William's army set about destroying homes and crops, and extinguishing all human and animal life from the Humber to the Wash. Those that avoided violent death died from exposure or starvation.

The bloodletting didn't stop William from celebrating Christmas at York, complete with a feast served on silver plate especially brought up from Winchester. Christmas over, William chased the men of Tees around the Cleveland hills. William's harrowing of the north had its effect on the leaders of the northern rebellion, as Waltheof and Gospatrick both came to an accommodation with him. The king made his way back to York in atrocious conditions, seeking bands of Englishmen as he went, and suffering heavy losses of men in the process. Here he re-erected the castles the Anglo-Norse had burned down and re-garrisoned them. He was now able to turn his attention to Chester, which was defiantly refusing to recognise him. Chester was at the northern extremity of the Welsh Marches and at the same time offered access to the Norse based in Ireland, should they decide to help their relations living in Cumberland.

In January 1070, a Norman army set off across the Pennines in bad weather through land that offered them no sustenance as they themselves had laid it waste. William's army suffered badly in the hills to both weather and English attacks. The men, who were mainly mercenaries from the northern provinces of France, mutinied, so he abandoned them to their fate. With a reduced force consisting of only Normans, he arrived at Chester, and it submitted without a fight. He then busied himself building castles to hold the north down. He also spent money on buying the Danes, under their leader, Jarl Osbjorn, off with a large Danegeld.

The revolt in the Fens, lead by Hereward, had been strengthened by refugees from the harrowing of Northumberland, including Earl Morcar. At the same time Osbjorn taking the bribe had weakened it. However, whilst his brother, Jarl Osbjorn, and his fleet had been bought off, King Swein of Denmark and his new fleet hadn't! What happened during the years 1070 and 1071 is as much legend as recorded fact. We know that William made at least two unsuccessful attempts, either in person, or through a lieutenant, to take the Isle of Ely where Hereward and his forces were based. We also know that Hereward kept his Danish allies paid by allowing them to sack Peterborough and its Cathedral, now controlled by a Norman Abbot. What we do not know are the exact happenings, or the sequence of events. Eventually Swein, perhaps seeing himself in a no win situation, allowed himself to be bought off. The Normans took later Ely after local monks betrayed secret causeways through the Fens that would allow an army access to the Isle. Although Ely fell in 1071, Hereward escaped and, with a band of followers, remained a thorn in King William's side for many years to come.

1072 and the trouble came from the Scots with their numbers swelled by many English, including Edgar Æþeling. William took an army across the border and confronted Malcolm King of Scots at Abernethy. Malcolm accepted the inevitable and made peace.

By 1073, William felt that at last he had conquered England. Just as well, as his French subjects in Maine were revolting. The army that William took with him to bring his French subjects to heel was largely English. These Englishmen showed that they had watched their Norman masters well, for they devastated Maine in the same manner as the Normans had Cheshire and Northumberland. But, apart from some banditry, England was quietly brooding both that year and the following.

The storm broke in 1075 with the "Revolt of the Earls. The two Earls were both half English and half French, and both had supported William in his claim for the throne in 1066. Ralf, Earl of East Anglia, was English on his father's side and had been born in Norfolk, but grew up in Brittany. Roger, Earl of Hereford, English on his mother's side and born in Hereford, was Ralf's brother-in-law. They plotted to bring in Danish support, they also tried to bring in both Edric the Wild and Earl Waltheof. Waltheof declined to be involved in the plot, but also declined to betray them. If successful, the simultaneous rising of the Earls would have cut England in two. Somehow the timing got out of alignment and William was able to crush Roger, before dealing to Ralf. The only memorable event was the defence of Norwich by Ralf's new bride, Emma, where she withstood siege for three months after her husband had left to seek aid from the Danes. The fleet of 200 ships arrived too late to lift the siege. Of the Earls: Ralf made it to his Breton holdings to be joined by his wife, and there he continued his fight against the Normans. His punishment was losing all right to his English lands. Earl Roger was also disinherited. Unfortunately for him he had been captured and spent the rest of his life in prison. Earl Waltheof, having refused to take part in the revolt, had none-the-less to swear an oath of secrecy. Taking the advice of Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury, he revealed the whole plan to King William. At first the king accepted Waltheof's protestations of innocence but, some say on the information given to him by his niece Judith, Waltheof's wife, he later charged the Earl of Northumberland with treason and had him beheaded. The English and many Normans were aghast at the execution. Soon miracles were reported at Waltheof's tomb and it rapidly became a place of pilgrimage. Many contemporaries said that King William's luck changed from then onwards as a result of Divine judgment.

William's troubles were now mostly in France or the borders with Scotland whence Malcolm and his English supporters came to raid. The Welsh too were a cause for concern. The only major problems from the English came in 1080, when the men of Gateshead slew the Bishop of Durham and a hundred Frenchmen, and 1086 when Edgar Æþeling was again in revolt. But to the very end of his reign, the following year, William was threatened by the Danes, who knew that any landing they made on the East Anglian or Northumberland coasts would find support from their relatives in the Danelaw.

Even during those later years, when it seemed that the English were getting used to having Norman masters, things were not that peaceful. Evidence of this is the Murdrum fine. Because of the high rate of homicide being suffered by the Normans and their French allies, King William legislated that all Frenchmen who settled in England after the invasion were to be in the king's peace and therefore he was their protector in an alien land. Its introduction was recognised at the time as being necessary due to the hatred of the Normans by the English and their attacks on them. The fine was a high one of 46 Marks. The sum was to be paid by the lord of the dead man to the Crown if the perpetrator was not hastily caught. If the killer could not reimburse the victim's lord, then the Hundred where the crime had been committed had to.

In view of the strength and longevity of the English resistance to the Norman Conquest, why did it fail? A vital element was King William's determination and immense energy that saw him going from one end of the country to the other, fighting the flames of resistance and stamping on the smoldering embers of resentment. Another important element was that, once an area had been secured, castles were raised and garrisoned to keep the locals in check. But the key element was that the viable leadership of any English resistance was effectively neutralised when King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings. There was no king, and therefore no leadership or heart in the remaining English. Until a new king was elected, the defence of the realm devolved on the noble ealdormen - who were either dead, or recovering from Stamford Bridge or Fulford. Under the ealdormen came the king's thanes and shire-reeves (people like Edric the Wild or Hereward the Wake, Harold's son Swein or any one of a myriad other resistance leaders who remained a problem to the Normans) who did continue the fight against William in their own regions. Those English nobles who were left after the defeat on Senlac Ridge seemed to be driven solely by their own personal quest for survival, co-operating with each other on occasions, only to head off on their own agenda when it suited them. Without decisive leadership, no English army could take the field. That was advantageous to William, giving him time to recover, take London and Winchester and force the acknowledgement of his accession from the remaining members of the Witan. But it did take until 1075 until William felt confident in his control of England. Then it was the turn of Anglo-Norman barons to rebel against him, claiming a wish to return to the laws and rights of Englishmen during the rule of Edward the Confessor. And always there was the threat of Viking invasion, supported by the men of the Danelaw.

Slowly the English and Normans came together through the necessity of living side by side and also through marriage. With many of the rank and file Normans, and their French colleagues, being men of small worth, they had little option, but to mix in with their English neighbours, leaving their noble masters to carry on the illusion of being truly French. But even they, with their children being raised by English nannies and their English reeves and stewards managing their estates, became first Anglo-Norman, and then English. An Anglo-Norman chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, who wrote in 1125, even applauded the continued resistance of the English to William the Bastard!

Written by Geoff Boxell, author of the novel 'Woden's Wolf' which covers the period above.

Sources: Ordericus Vitalis - Ecclesiastical Historii, Geoffrey Gaimer - Gesta Herwardi, William of Malmesbury - De Gestis Regum Anglorum, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle